The Festival Theatre audience stood as one and gave a rapturous standing ovation for Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, the singer from Elcho Island, off the coast of Arnhem Land, from the Gumatj clan of the Yolngu people (and from the Galpu nation on his mother’s side).
There was no booing, only respect and adoration for a uniquely gifted artist who fuses traditional songs and words with modern instruments. Gurrumul is a man who is in touch with his 40,000-year-old culture and his hope is that his music reaches and unites everyone.
His first two albums, Gurrumul and Rrakala, were incredibly successful and this concert celebrates Gurrumul’s latest release, The Gospel Album. Apparently the album is rocketing up the charts and, if sales continue at the current rate, he may be the first Indigenous artist to have an album debut at No 1. It would be a fitting tribute to a very special musician.
Caiti Baker was the support act for last night’s performance and she sang a terrific set of blues and soul, with the highlights being Irma Thomas’s “Ruler of my Heart” and Tom Waits’ “Way Down in the Hole”. Baker can really belt out a song with power and passion and she was an excellent preparation for Gurrumul.
Double bass player Michael Hohnen introduced Gurrumul and the pair warmed up the audience by playing a couple of hits from the first two albums. The audience responded warmly to the familiar “Wiyathul” and “Bapa”. Gurrumul’s voice is so clear and distinctive, it has the effect of transporting you back in time while projecting you forward to a hopeful future: his music is the sound of possibility.
Just as Yothu Yindi managed to inspire a whole nation to sing “Treaty”, Gurrumul is bringing Yolngu culture and language to a national and international audience. But you do not need to know the Yolngu language to enjoy his music; it is ethereal, joyful, spiritual and universal. There is a purity about the man and his music that allows the listener to revel in our humanity and marvel at what we can achieve.
Some may wonder why Gurrumul would produce a gospel album but, historically, missionaries did introduce Aboriginal people to religious music and, being a musical and spiritual people, they adopted it into their own culture. The song “Jesu” is slow and repetitive, but hypnotic and captivating, “Nhaku Limurr” is hauntingly beautiful, and “The Sweetest Name”, with its sweet melody, has a driving drum beat reminiscent of a marching band.
Very popular last night was Gurrumul’s rendition of “Amazing Grace”, which, when performed in Yolngu, has a new feel and an even greater resonance given the history of the song. We were also treated to a song about the Crow which will appear on Gurrumul’s next album.
Throughout the evening, Ben Hauptmann played some terrific guitar. The capable female choir, Women with Latitude, provided excellent backing vocals and Caiti Baker added her musicality to the ensemble.
Gurrumul is a rare performer who brings unique qualities to the world of music, but more than this, he has discovered a sound which is unifying and appealing to everyone, regardless of their ethnic background. It was a pleasure and a privilege to see him at the Festival Theatre. If you have an opportunity hear him live, do so; if not, buy his albums.
Through listening to Gurrumul’s music and language, all Australians may come to appreciate the importance of song and dance in Aboriginal culture and why, as the first nation of this country, Indigenous people deserve a special place, appreciation and understanding. There is much to do if there is to be true reconciliation in Australia and Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu is reaching out, touching hearts and minds: through his music we can connect, heal and take steps towards repairing some of the wrongs of the past while looking forward to a better future for all Australians.
Gurrumul performed one show only at Adelaide’s Festival Theatre as part of a national tour. The Gospel Album, produced by Skinnyfish Music, is out now.